January 20, 2012

Context’s major role in our perceptions

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Move over, timing; you can’t be everything, because context is a pretty powerful something too! In his new book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World,Tufts University psychology professor Sam Sommers makes the case that context has an enormous influence on human behavior—and therefore tremendous impact on our lives. If we’re oblivious to these forces, we risk jumping to erroneous conclusions, unwisely conforming to the group or even convincing ourselves we’re “in love” when it’s only situation and circumstance causing our hearts to palpitate. But, he contends, armed with an understanding of the particular “frame” or situation, and an awareness of its power to push us in one direction or another, we can confidently make better decisions and be more effective personally and professionally. “When we look at situations objectively, detaching ourselves from the emotion and bias that often cloud our vision, we’re better able to pick up on the clues that allow us to understand other people and achieve the outcomes we seek.”

Sommers dexterously weaves research, anecdotes and his own marital sitcom-like experiences into a witty, narrative whole, as he helps us explore our human foibles and discover the invisible forces compelling our thoughts, choices and actions. In a chapter provocatively titled “You’re Not the Person You Thought You Were,” he explains that even self-perception is dependent on context: “Your sense of self varies depending on who you are with. Identity is malleable . . . but none of this is bad or distressing news.” It is empowering to consider yourself a flexible work in progress, he explains, because “who you are today need not dictate who you are tomorrow.” Rather than wasting time looking for your “inner self,” he prescribes “appreciating that you’re a different person in different settings.” He even finds a little self-deception, to “salve the wounds of negative feedback,” is wholesome if used in moderation, “like red wine, chocolate and Jim Carrey movies,” to help ourselves recover from setbacks and become happier and more successful.

Sommers’ book challenges us to think twice about long-held perceptions, to view the world through the lens of context and to realize just how much Situations Matter.

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